This is the third installment in a four-part series on Joseph Conrad’s novel “Victory.” The first part, which details the plot and the hierarchy among its characters, and the second part, which concerns the character Lena and the hierarchy between action and inaction, are available online at bilnews.bilkent.edu.tr/opinions.
In Heyst’s case, external factors acting upon him influence the struggle between action and observation that dominates his life. His father, a “destroyer of systems, of hopes, of beliefs…[a] bitter condemner of life,” has left Heyst loath to engage with life, traveling with an eye to “look on and never make a sound.” The father’s portrait hangs in the bungalow he shares with Lena, a picture that Conrad describes repeatedly as “haughty” or “reproachful,” as if it were condemning the consequences of Heyst’s one damning act. He wavers between action and inaction, which prevents him from being satisfied with his choices; he is “hurt by the sight of his own life, which ought to have been a masterpiece of aloofness,” while his polite neutrality impedes him, not least by alienating characters like Schomberg who do him harm because of it. He does not demonstrate his regard for Lena on her deathbed, prevented by a visceral aversion that haunts him – “Heyst bent low over her, cursing his fastidious soul, which even at that moment kept the true cry of love from his lips in its infernal mistrust of all life. He dared not touch her” – and he passes on the opportunity to evade Mr. Jones before the confrontation in the bungalow, “his very will…dead of weariness.” His indecision is examined most closely during his final discussions with Lena, when he declaims in various tones his inability to protect her, his distance from all violence and his doubtful capability for confrontation even if armed. The middle ground is in Heyst’s case what destroys him; after failing to remain impartial, he also fails to commit to life, which renders him unable to deal with the results of his two acts. The first shocks him into seclusion, the second into suicide. He disappears from the novel with an impassioned, “Ah, Davidson, woe to the man whose heart has not learned while young to hope, to love – and to put its trust in life!,” lamenting bitterly the paternal fetters that have barred him from the world.
Heyst’s father is never named, relegating him to a specific role that strengthens a budding Christ parallel; he was a man “who had spent his life in blowing blasts upon a terrible trumpet which filled heaven and earth with ruins, while mankind went on its way unheeding.” Heyst emulates his beliefs, deferring to his father’s books in a passage Conrad significantly begins “And Heyst, the son, read….” He is the reluctant savior for both Lena and Morrison, the latter of whom gets down on his knees to pray before Heyst appears, and regards him afterward as an “agent of Providence” who has saved a man “already gone to the bad, past redemption.” Lena, on the other hand, is not only preserved from “moral corruption and degradation” by his intervention, but the relationship between the two is also described in a manner that recalls Mary Magdalene and Christ; “she was afraid she could never satisfy [him],” Conrad says, “as if her passion were of a hopelessly lower quality, unable to appease some exalted and delicate desire of his superior soul.” While discussing Heyst’s character, Schomberg and Ricardo endow him with two of their own qualities, calling him greedy because of what happened to Morrison and lecherous because of the situation with Lena. While Heyst is distantly, conflictedly fond of and tender with both Lena and Morrison, neither Schomberg nor Ricardo recognizes the nature of these relations, and the two project onto his person their own various sins, for which he later dies.
The parallel may be continued through the conditions of Heyst’s death, which is preceded by those of both the people he intends to assist. His father’s word has been departed from, and the consequences are similar to those experienced by Mr. Jones, the only other “gentleman”: Heyst and Jones have other similarities in their detachment from life and their tendency to unnerve others, but deviate in their morals and appearance – where Heyst is good and large and present, Jones is spectral, drawn, an unholy ghost. “Our guest!” Heyst says, agitated, of Ricardo; “There is a proverb…when a guest enters the house, God enters the house.” There is a pause before he finishes in frustration, “I venture to think that God has nothing to do with such a hospitality and such a guest!” Nothing is said of Mr. Jones.